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What Are Alcohol’s Effects on Mental Health (Good & Bad)?

Is it possible for a substance to be both a poison and an elixir?

With alcohol, the most widely used and abused intoxicant in the world, it has more traits in common with the former than the latter. Substantial evidence bears this out. For example, a little more than 86 percent of people, age 18 or older, said they drank alcohol at some point in their lifetime, according to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH). 

With that widespread consumption, comes the tendency for many people to engage in excessive drinking. According to the 2014 NSDUH, an estimated 61 million Americans were classified as binge drinkers, meaning they consumed five or more drinks on the same occasion at least once a month. Also, 16 million were counted as heavy alcohol users, meaning they consumed five or more drinks on the same occasion on five or more days in a single month.

However, there is a reason alcohol is so entrenched in mainstream American culture. People embrace beer, wine, and hard liquor to the point of ritualizing their consumption. It’s no coincidence that alcohol is often the centerpiece at many social gatherings, from sporting events and bar crawls to weddings and after-work meetups.

For a good number of people, alcohol has helped them create utterly gratifying memories, whether it was a romantic encounter or an amazing night out. Purportedly, drinking a certain amount of alcohol has purported health benefits, which makes it earn its moniker as an elixir.

Still, the most underreported impact of alcohol is its impact on mental health, both good and bad.

Read on to learn more.

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The Physical Impact of Alcohol Use

One truism about alcohol is that heavy and long-term use is detrimental to your health, particularly in the physiological realm.

Consider this point from the Harvard School of Public Health: Ethanol, the active ingredient in alcohol, influences the stomach, heart, brain, liver, and gallbladder. It also impacts lipid levels and inulin in the blood.  

In hard terms, heavy alcohol use and binge drinking can cause:

  • Stomach pains
  • Diarrhea
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Enlarged heart
  • Cirrhosis
  • Fatty liver disease
  • Alcoholic hepatitis
  • Fibrosis
  • Pancreatitis

What’s more, drinking alcohol can put you at higher risk of getting six kinds of cancer, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • Liver
  • Colon and rectum
  • Esophagus
  • Larynx
  • Breast (in women)
  • Mouth and throat

Heavy alcohol consumption degrades the immune system, leaving it prone to invading diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, and HIV/AIDS.

Alcohol and Mental Health: The Good

Alcohol is a central nervous system (CNS) depressant, meaning it slows or depresses CNS activity. It accomplishes this by mimicking and binding to a chemical in the brain called gamma-Aminobutyric acid or GABA, the principal neurotransmitter responsible for inhibiting nerve transmission in the brain.

In other words, when you drink, it invokes feelings of relaxation and lowers inhibition. Alcohol also releases endorphins, the brain chemicals associated with pleasure. The higher the number of endorphins released, the better drinkers feel.

Psychology Today lists these factors that lead people to drink alcohol:

Past experiences. When people have positive associations with alcohol, they likely will be more motivated to drink. The opposite is true if people have a negative association with alcohol, such as experiencing alcohol flush reactions and nausea after drinking. This will make people less likely to drink. 

Impulsive personality. Impulsive people will value the rewards that alcohol use brings, despite the long-term consequences. People who drink heavily tend to be more spontaneous than light drinkers. Thus, they will consume more alcohol. 

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Stress. People who have mental health issues like mood or anxiety disorders will turn to alcohol to relieve their feelings and symptoms. The drinking alleviates the stress, however temporarily.

Social norms.  When it comes to alcohol, culture can influence drinking. Social norms around alcohol use can influence the value people place on drinking. When drinking is a normative aspect of an activity, it can cause people to indulge, controlling how alcohol is consumed. 

Environment. Exposure to alcohol-related cues can provoke someone to drink, which enhances its value to that person.   

Alcohol and Mental Health: The Bad

Alcohol and mental health issues are inextricably linked. First off, alcohol disrupts the communication pathways in the brain, impacting mood and behavior while also impairing cognition and coordination. That interference explains why there is a high correlation between alcohol and depression.

It is also no coincidence that people who struggle with alcohol use disorder (AUD) tend to experience depression, anxiety, and impulsivity.

Also, people will drink to quell the symptoms that result from existing mental health disorders. However, doing so will only provide temporary relief while exacerbating the negative consequences that come. In fact, after having a few drinks, people will mistakenly believe that the stimulation they feel means their issues have been properly alleviated. 

Over time, however, the adverse effects can set in where alcohol proves to be an ineffective coping mechanism.

Writing for PsychCentral, Dr. Jesse Viner states that, “…as time goes on, and drinking becomes excessive, alcohol raids the central nervous system, shifting the normal processes within the body and brain.”

Drinking can cause rebound anxiety, where these feelings may be more intense than before.

It can also induce blackouts, cause memory loss, and interfere with sleep patterns.

“When alcohol interferes with normal sleep patterns, energy levels sink. Moods fluctuate as a result of drinking, since alcohol directly depresses the central nervous system,” writes Viner.

What’s more, alcohol can lower inhibition, causing people to engage in risky and/or life-threatening behaviors like engaging in promiscuous behaviors, operating a motor vehicle or machinery, acting aggressively, or driving or operating machinery while impaired. 

Other Harrowing Consequences from Alcohol Use

Alcohol is commonly consumed with drugs like opioids and sleep medications in a practice known as polysubstance abuse. Use of this kind can be fatal, especially when alcohol is paired with another CNS depressant like a benzodiazepine or non-benzodiazepine sleep medication like Ambien, Lunesta, or Sonata.

Another danger that drinking provokes is memories of trauma.

According to Viner, “Alcohol can spark repressed feelings associated with painful events of the past, memories powerful enough to create overwhelming anxiety, depression, or shame.”

When people relive trauma and the feelings those events conjure, it can endanger one’s safety.

Why Professional Treatment Is Critical

Few substances are as dangerous as alcohol in terms of the withdrawal symptoms that come after drinking alcohol stops. In fact, the worst of those withdrawal symptoms is a condition known as delirium tremens (DTs), a serious effect that can last three days. Users can experience dangerous psychological and physical symptoms, which include:

  • Agitation
  • Fever
  • Hallucinations
  • Seizures
  • Severe confusion

A professional treatment program will not only allow for a medically supervised acute treatment process, where the alcohol is flushed from your body, but it will also allow for medications to be administered to treat those withdrawal symptoms, particularly those that psychological in nature. 

In cases of co-occurring addiction and mental health disorders, a professional recovery program can offer dual diagnosis, which features evidence-based methods proven to treat simultaneous mental health and substance use disorders.  

After acute treatment for alcohol, it is recommended that you undergo a process referred to as clinical stabilization services, where you can receive intensive therapy and counseling designed to get to the root of your addiction. You will also receive strategies that will help minimize triggers that cause you to drink.

To fully maximize your recovery, you can continue to receive ongoing treatment through partial care.

Once treatment is completed, you will also be connected to a program like 12 steps, which provides you with a recovery community that can provide ongoing support. Communities such as these can diminish the threat of relapse.

Let Us Help You

You do not have to suffer the harrowing mental and physical effects of active alcohol addiction. Let us help you find a program that can get you sober and provide you lasting relief. 

Sources

Alcohol and Cancer | CDC. (n.d.). from https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/alcohol/index.htm

Alcohol's Effects on the Body. (n.d.). from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/alcohols-effects-body

Alcohol: Balancing Risks and Benefits. (2018, August 30). from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/healthy-drinks/drinks-to-consume-in-moderation/alcohol-full-story/

Delphi Behavioral Health Group. (2019, February 05). Alcoholism | Facts, Addiction & Treatment. from https://delphihealthgroup.com/alcohol/

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (n.d.). What classes of prescription drugs are commonly misused? from https://www.drugabuse.gov/publications/misuse-prescription-drugs/what-classes-prescription-drugs-are-commonly-misused

Thrasybule, L. (2012, January 11). Alcohol Releases the Brain's 'Feel-Good' Chemicals. from https://www.livescience.com/36084-alcohol-releases-endorphins-brain.html

Viner, J. (2018, July 08). Alcohol May Not Help: Alcohol's Impact on Your Mental Health. from https://psychcentral.com/blog/alcohol-may-not-help-alcohols-impact-on-your-mental-health/

Why Do People Drink? (n.d.). from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201703/why-do-people-drink

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